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Is it RIP for PowerPC spec?

The PowerPC Platform specification is in danger of drifting into obscurity as some of its most powerful original supporters practically ignore it.

The PowerPC Reference Platform specification is in danger of drifting into obscurity as some of its most powerful original supporters practically ignore it and the next-generation version of the operating system for the Macintosh that would run on the platform is perennially delayed.

The PowerPC Platform specification, formerly known as the Common Hardware Reference Design, or CHRP, is intended to provide an open standard for a system design that would use the PowerPC chip and run multiple operating systems, including Apple's Mac OS and Microsoft's Windows NT. When CHRP was first announced, Apple Computer, IBM, and Motorola touted it as the technology that would dislodge Intel from its position as PC hardware supplier to the world.

Systems based on the PowerPC Platform Reference Design, the blueprint for the new architecture, were initially supposed to ship in the second half of 1996, including a PowerPC-compliant system from Apple and a system from IBM, which would also run the Mac OS.

But that target has slipped away from PowerPC Platform proponents. While the reference design itself has advanced somewhat during the past few months--for example, establishing a new high-speed bus of 75 MHz--systems based on the specification aren't expected until well into 1997.

The delay stems principally from Apple's failure to finish a version of the Mac OS that would run on systems that supported the specification. The motherboards--the main circuit board in a PC--based on the reference design are actually ready to go, but the boards are of little use without a compelling operating system.

"This platform won't come to market until the Mac OS is ready for it. We're behind in terms of the expectation level we set," says Jesse Parker, director of marketing for IBM's microelectronics division.

Apple says it expects to ship a version of System 7.6 for the PowerPC Platform specification next March.

While delays of software and hardware are hardly a surprise in the computer industry, some observers say the wait is not an engineering accident but the result of continued ambivalence on the part of top Apple management about the Mac clone market and whether it will undermine Apple's own market share.

"Apple is really scared of depleting their hardware revenues if they completely unleash the clone market [with the PowerPC Platform OS]. They're in a really difficult position. The OS for the CHRP platform is finally due in March. That unleashes the Mac market like crazy," said Kimball Brown, an analyst with Dataquest, a market research firm.

"If Apple continues to license aggressively, they risk losing market share. If they don't, developers will lose interest in the platform," Brown explained.

If Apple feels ambivalent about encouraging the clone market, it might feel even more nervous about one of the other supposed benefits of the PowerPC Platform specification: the ability to run both the Mac OS and Windows NT operating systems. While Apple has yet to clarify its strategy for its own PowerPC products, it appears to have no intention of exploiting the possibility of creating a dual-boot system.

Like Apple, IBM seems reticent about announcing plans for the Platform. The division that sells IBM's consumer and corporate PCs has reportedly cancelled plans to release a system that would run the Mac OS and compete with its existing offerings running on Intel chips and the Windows OS. The RS/6000 division is more likely to use the PowerPC Platform specification, but the company hasn't declared its intentions yet for this area either.

Motorola is one of the original three proponents that doesn't have anything to lose. As a result, it's the only one with clear plans. Dennis Schneider, vice president of worldwide marketing for Motorola, says it will not only ship a PowerPC Platform but also enhance motherboard performance with 64-bit PCI controller chips and 64-bit memory controllers to reduce bottlenecks.